What is the Problem with Palm Oil? Why Should We Care?

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oil palm plantation
Image by Lian Pin Koh via Flickr Creative Commons license.

The most widely used vegetable oil in the world is palm oil which is produced from the fruits of trees called African oil palms. It’s a globally-traded agricultural commodity that’s used on so many different consumer products. It’s so vital a commodity that 50% of the products you’ll find in a supermarket contain palm oil!

Compared to soybean oil (the second most widely consumed vegetable oil), palm oil only requires one-tenth as much land, one-seventh as much fertiliser, one-fourteenth as much pesticide, and one-sixth as much energy to produce.

Because of how cheap palm oil can be made, the demand for it has doubled for the last 15 years and is expected to grow even more. The oil palm trees that were mainly grown in Africa during the 1960’s were shifted to Southeast Asia in the 20th century. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia are the leading producers of palm oil in the world.

Problems with palm oil

The production of palm oil is a very profitable industry. It creates jobs for so many people and significantly contributes to economic growth, alleviating poverty in the process. However, the economic benefits of palm oil come with disadvantages and issues that need to be dealt with.

And unfortunately, the following disadvantages of palm oil far outweigh its benefits:

Environmental Impacts

The most alarming effect of palm oil production lies in how negatively it impacts the environment. The two most pressing issues here are large-scale forest conversion and the loss of habitat especially for species of animals that are already endangered.

Due to the ever-growing demand for palm oil, more and more land is being turned over for production. What’s more alarming is it’s not just agricultural land but more importantly, native rainforests are being burned down — all to provide more area for oil palm trees to grow.

Whether or not the clearing of these rainforests is illegal or not is a separate issue altogether. What everyone needs to understand is deforestation destroys the places where different animals and plants live.

To show how serious this is, there were around 315,000 orangutans back in the 1990s. Today, however, it’s estimated their numbers have been reduced to only about 50,000. Other than the orangutans, other animals like Sumatran tigers and rhinoceros, sun bears, and clouded leopards are all at risk of facing extinction due to loss of habitat.

Some may argue palm oil is not the only reason why biodiversity is facing a significant threat. However, the fact that it does play a part can’t be denied. After all, the clearing of native rainforests is usually done by burning them off instead of using tools that are typically found in a tree surgeon’s toolbox.

Climate Change

Rainforests are the world’s most significant ‘sinks’ of carbon dioxide, and with a lot of them gone to make way for oil palm plantations, a lot of carbon is released into the atmosphere. And since carbon dioxide is considered a primary greenhouse gas, it only worsens yet another issue — climate change.

In Indonesia where rainforests are razed to make way for industrial palm oil plantations, deforestation is responsible for 80% of the whole country’s CO2 emissions. This also makes Indonesia the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Pollution

Not only does deforestation create greenhouse gases, but smoke is also produced from burning rainforests. This contributes to air pollution which is harmful to human health, especially to those who are working in the plantations.

The smoke that comes from burning trees can travel very long distances. Proof of this was what happened in Singapore in June 2013. Illegal forest fires on the island of Sumatra, part of Indonesia, were responsible. This incident caused a thick haze to cover the city and children had to stay inside their homes to protect them from the polluted air.

Erosion

It’s a known fact, even on a small scale, a piece of land with no plants or trees is prone to erosion. This means erosion occurs on an even bigger scale on lands where rainforests once stood. And even with the plantations replacing the forest lands, there is still no ground cover crops that help protect the soil.

What happens is the healthy topsoil gets washed away and can potentially clog up rivers and other bodies of water. Since the soil is no longer as healthy due to erosion and the lack of biodiversity, chemicals in the form of fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, etc. are added to the soil to promote better growth of oil palm trees.

This is when it gets even more alarming. The chemicals used in these plantations can leach into the ground. These can also be washed away into nearby bodies of water, polluting them and affecting both people and animals in the process.

Social Impacts

It’s not just the environment that suffers a lot due to unsustainable production of palm oil. It’s not only the endangered animals that are driven away from their homes. The indigenous people who live in these lands also lose their homes and their livelihoods as well.

Stories of illegal land grabs and human rights abuses are far too familiar in places where palm oil plantations are built. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples’ customary land rights are often not recognised by the state. This leads to the government handing over their lands to oil palm companies for development.

Even the workers in the plantations often live in deplorable conditions without access to necessary facilities like clean water and lighting. Illegal trafficking cases have also been identified both in Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm plantations. To make things worse, child labour is also a widespread problem.

oil palm trees
Image by a_rabin via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Why You Should Care and What You Can Do

The problems surrounding the palm oil industry, as stated above, should be more than enough to make anyone care and more importantly, act. However, it’s not as simple as not buying products that contain palm oil. And unfortunately, that’s because there are no better and cheaper alternatives to palm oil as of yet.

That leaves people with only one option — buy products that only use sustainable palm oil. However, doing so can still bring some challenges especially if you consider how many aliases palm oil goes by in ingredient labels of different products. Additionally, just 17% of worldwide palm oil production is sustainable.

One way to know if the product you’re buying contains sustainable palm oil is by looking for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label. The RSPO is a not-for-profit that unites stakeholders from different sectors of the of the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

You can also tell retailers you only want to buy products that use sustainable palm oil specifically. And while you do that, it would also be helpful to raise awareness by telling other people about the negative impacts of non-sustainable palm oil.

Conclusion

As a consumer, what you can do about the problems regarding palm oil may seem limited. And it is. However, that’s only if few people are doing their part. If the whole world is made aware of the detrimental effects of palm oil on the environment, the animals, and the people; the production of 100% sustainable palm oil shouldn’t be far from becoming a reality.

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